Concern for Safety of Unborn not a Legitimate Defense to Pregnancy Discrimination

While people can be well-meaning when they offer unsolicited advice about your pregnancy, when it comes to the workforce, it is not appropriate for your employer to make decisions based on your pregnancy. This is true even if your boss had good intentions.

An example of possible paternalism gone wrong

A recent story out of North Carolina is an example of how a good-meaning supervisor can go too far, according to the EEOC. Chantoni McBryde worked as a shop apprentice at a retail furniture franchise. Part of her job involved using different chemicals to repair furniture. Once she informed her shop trainer that she was pregnant, she was pulled aside by her managers to confirm her pregnancy. During the meeting, one of the managers showed McBryde a can of lacquer thinner, containing a warning that the contents could potentially pose a risk to a pregnant woman or her unborn child. McBryde was then told that, because she was pregnant she could no longer work at the facility.

Fear for the safety of an unborn child is not legal grounds for termination

As the EEOC points out, even if the employer is acting with the best intentions, expressing fear for the safety of an employee’s unborn child. That type of concern, regardless of how legitimate, will not excuse pregnancy discrimination, which is what happens when an employee is terminated "because of" her pregnancy, as in McBryde's case. The EEOC’s Charlotte District Office regional attorney, Lynette Barnes, had this to say on the matter:

Pregnant women have the right to make their own decisions about working while pregnant, including the risks they are willing to assume. Companies must not impose paternalistic notions on pregnant women as doing so can result in unlawful discrimination.

It is never the employer's place to take any steps to protect a pregnant employee or her fetus. Those decisions must be left to the employee.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1978, prohibits employers from discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, termination, compensation, work assignments, career development, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. Employers are also prohibited from treating pregnant women different from other employees because of their pregnancy or any pregnancy-related conditions. This type of biased treatment is considered a form of sex discrimination.

Termination in anticipation of an issue is a problem

Federal courts have held that a company may be entitled to terminate a pregnant employee when she is no longer able to perform her job effectively, as long as their light duty policy is

consistently applied to all employees. However, when an employee is terminated five (5) weeks before her pregnancy-related restrictions would actually go into effect, that is a problem. In other words, as one court has held, the employer could not terminate an employee “simply because it believes pregnancy might prevent the employee from doing her job.

If you feel you have been the victim of pregnancy discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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